‘When are we going to Rwanda?” my 13-year-old daughter kept asking. She wanted to go there as soon as I was asked to visit the country to show solidarity with its people. She wasn’t asking in a naive, childish way; she knew that it was a serious thing, marking the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Initially, the scheduling wasn’t working out, but Hannah kept on reminding me.
And so, almost a year later — thanks to her and the Aegis Trust — I’m standing in the Kigali Genocide Memorial, trying to get my head around what happened in 1994, what that means for Rwanda today and what, if anything, it might mean for the rest of us.
Sixteen years can feel like a lifetime. But when you’re facing the fallout of a genocide, as I discovered in Rwanda, it can feel like no time at all.
It’s very hard for an individual to take on the concept of a million people dying in 100 days. But as soon as you listen to one person’s story you start to relate on a human level, and you begin to realise just how devastating it was. The centre at Kigali was at its most powerful when it got personal.
A few days later I’m sitting in Winifred’s front room. Her home is a rudimentary affair, involving mud walls and a thatched roof, but it’s fairly standard in a country where, despite astonishing economic progress, most people still earn little more than £1 a day. But the emptiness in her eyes tells you that no amount of material progress will solve what’s eating this woman.
Pregnant during the genocide, Winifred gave birth after being raped, beaten and left for dead. She was unable to protect her newborn baby, and the child was dragged away and eaten by dogs. Today she has Aids from the rape, and is unable to support herself without charity, because of the loss of breadwinners in her family during the genocide.
Her son, then 10 years old, witnessed everything. He now has enormous psychological problems. It’s little wonder. In Rwanda, where psychological support is an unaffordable luxury, the need is overwhelming.
For the sake of Rwanda’s future, there is no question that reconciliation is the only way forward. At the same time, survivors such as Winifred are living almost next door to perpetrators. It’s ridiculously naive to think that a victim of the genocide can just bury what happened to them and move on. Reconciliation can’t be rushed. It’s going to take time, sensitivity, careful handling and proper education.
The danger is that with all the tragedies happening around the world, people think of the Rwandan genocide as something that’s over. From what I saw, however, it is happening; it’s not a past thing. Its consequences are clearly spilling from one generation to the next. We can’t restore what was destroyed, but we can — and we should — acknowledge that suffering and help survivors to pick up the pieces. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Rwanda is a stunningly beautiful country, and there’s a palpable sense of hope for the future.
It doesn’t feel like a cynical place, which is incredible, considering what happened. Going to Rwanda has changed my life in some ways. The impact of those five days is still reverberating around me, and it’s become part of everything I do. Because it’s one thing to hear about things, it’s another to be there and see it and smell it, and witness the people who have lived it.
The overriding feeling I came away with was not that there was a group of awful people doing terrible things during that time, it’s that we, as human beings, have the potential to do it. You don’t have to have an evil disposition to get involved in the horrors of something like this.
People there were swept up into doing such things that, years later, they are still asking themselves why. To try to have a level of understanding of that is hugely important. It’s not about them and us. We have the potential to be those people. It’s a situation that develops that you have to be incredibly careful about.
Today we would probably still let a situation like the Rwandan genocide happen all over again somewhere else. To me, that’s the tragedy of it — and one reason why the work of genocide prevention is so important.
Clive Owen, English film, stage and television actor.